A/N: Another "episode" from Virtual Season Four.
LET IT SNOW
"All I'm saying is it would be nice to see some snow at Christmas. Come on," McCormick paused to extend a hand to the older man peering over his shoulder, "gimme the four-inch." He took the wrench and bent back over the truck engine, grunting with effort. "You musta had snow at Christmas in Arkansas."
Hardcastle fingered the other wrenches he was holding. "Sure, we had snow. Sometimes. It was nice, except when it took down the power lines and we had to sleep in front of the gas stove to keep warm. The pump would freeze, too, so we didn't have any water and had to melt the snow in front of the fireplace in big buckets."
Mark stopped working on the distributor and straightened up to look at his 'assistant', who kept talking as he stared off into the distance as though looking back into the past.
"We'd have to keep kerosene heaters going in the barn for the cows, and it seemed like there was always at least one broken. The snow'd get down the chimney sometimes and 'bout put out the fire, too. My mother'd put her Mason jars of all her preserves near the stove to keep the glass from cracking." The judge paused briefly, scratching his nose with a wrench. "'Least we didn't have school when it snowed that much. Couldn't get there and back. Mr. Kent, he owned the farm down the road, would hitch up his mules and stop by with some supplies from the store and any mail we had waiting."
McCormick leaned against the truck fender, staring at the judge.
Hardcastle kept right on. "Filling the kerosene lamps was one of my jobs and I hated that smell. But they worked good enough and my dad would pull down our old copy of 'Aesop's Fables' and 'A Christmas Carol' and read to us until bedtime. Once in a while, my mother would get down one or two of the dried ears of corn and we'd pop them over the fire. Now that was a great smell. Popcorn nowadays doesn't hold a candle to corn we popped ourselves." He sighed, contentedly.
"Before this turns into 'Little House on the Prairie', Judge, all I said was it would be nice to see some snow at Christmas." Mark handed back the wrench he'd requested and selected another from the older man's hand. "You know, just a coupla of inches would look like the holidays, dontcha think? We don't need kerosene lanterns and old-fashioned corn poppers. Just -" he waved a hand at the palm trees surrounding the pool, "a little less Malibu and a little more Dickens."
"I hope you appreciate all this snow," grumbled Hardcastle. "And the fact that I had to pay that guy twenty bucks to put our chains on." He squinted through the truck windshield, wipers going at half-speed to keep the snow from building up.
"I said I'll pay you back," McCormick was rapt in admiration of the snow gently falling outside the truck windows. "You knew they make you put on chains when you start up the pass to Tahoe. I offered to do it back a ways, but you didn't want to stop." He smiled out the side window, wiping a clearer space in the condensation to see the snowfall. "This is more like it."
The pine trees lining the highway soughed gently in the wind as the snow began to weigh down the branches. Drifts of more than a foot could be seen at the bases of some of the trees.
"Hey, you checked the weather forecast before we left, didn't you?"
"Of course. You wanted to see snow, right?" Hardcastle eased off the accelerator as he felt the truck slew just a bit on ice.
"Me?! You were the one mooning over the lost kerosene lanterns of your youth!" Mark grinned at him, then turned his attention back to the falling snow. "It does look like it's starting to really come down, though."
"Gunther's Inn and Rathskellar, just beyond the pass. Supposed to have good, solid food and plenty of it. Rustic atmosphere, and they guarantee snow at Christmas or you get ten percent off your bill. How 'bout that?"
The large chalet-style inn was gaily decorated with pine swags and candles in each window. Christmas lights were strung along the porch railing and the sign proclaiming that Gunther's Inn and Rathskellar Welcomes You had Santa and his reindeer perched atop it. Lights gleamed, fragrant smoke rose from the chimney and even Currier and Ives couldn't have improved the scene.
"Remember to stay in character," whispered the taller of the two men peering out the latticed window in the door. Then, after a deep breath, he pulled open the door to admit a gust of snow and two white-dusted travelers. "Wilkommen! I am Gunther and meine brüder Hans is here to take your bags. Der snow, it is falling so hard now, ja?" The smiling, rotund six-footer beamed on them and waved his brother, Hans, forward.
Hans, too, grinned at them, bowing at the waist and motioning them inside. Both men were husky, broadfaced, and cheerfully wearing intricately-embroidered waistcoats and abbreviated green jackets.
"Yeah, it is," was Hardcastle's gruff reply. "Here, you wanna take this one?" He handed over his small suitcase and entered the anteroom, stamping snow from his boots and flapping his jacket. "Brr!" He rubbed his hands together briskly.
"Hey!" came the complaint from outside the door, "make some room there!" McCormick shoved the judge from behind and entered, crusted with snow and shivering. "Where's that hot buttered rum you were talking about?" He dropped his overnight bag to clap his hands vigorously on his arms and then shook the snow from his hair.
A pine-paneled, beamed ceiling with an enormous Christmas tree in one corner, decorated with gold and silver ornaments and multi-colored lights, made the lodge's main room seem almost cozy. The log fire crackled and spat cheerily in the large stone fireplace and the scent of pine permeated the entire room. The room was nearly empty, but the attempt at Christmas cheer added a great deal of charm.
"Listen, you admit you were the one going all nostalgic on me about the cows freezing in the barn or we can go home right now."
"Well, maybe I was thinking a little snow might be nice. A little." The judge held up two fingers about an inch apart. "This is a bit more than I'd figured on."
Mark sipped at his rum again, staring at the roaring blaze in the fireplace. "Hans said the weather report is for snow all night, maybe up to more than a foot on the ground. At least," he wrinkled his brow in thought, "I think that's what he said. There was something about sauerbraten and noodles, too."
"His vocabulary's way too good to still have that accent. And it's also inconsistent." The judge took a sip of his own steaming rum and pondered for a moment. "Seems to me there's something just a little off about those two."
Noise and a bustle at the door, as a blast of cold air paved the way for more customers. A young couple entered, shaking the snow off their coats and blowing on their hands. The woman was blonde and in her early twenties, while the young man was darker, but still on the bright side of thirty and they had a slight resemblance each to the other. The lodge keeper ushered them toward the fire after taking their coats, and they approached shivering but smiling.
"Hello," said the blonde shyly. Her companion nodded in a friendly but reserved fashion and introduced himself and his companion.
"George Atkins," he said, giving each man a nod. "And this is my fianceé, Dorothy."
Mark made room for the petite blonde by standing and rearranging a chair so that it faced the roaring blaze directly. "Hi, there," he answered, holding out a hand to George after Dorothy was seated. "Still coming down out there, I guess, from the look of things."
George turned and shook the judge's hand, also. "Yep, harder than ever. We were hoping to get to Sacramento tonight, but the weather report isn't real great for the next couple of days. And tomorrow's Christmas Eve, so you know what traffic will be like."
"Not with a snowstorm. Here, edge up to the fire a bit," Hardcastle said to Dorothy, who was still shivering but smiling gamely. "I'm just wondering how many folks are gonna end up stranded here tonight."
"There was a semi pulling in just as we came through the door." Dorothy looked back toward the front door. "But there was hardly any traffic at all the last twenty miles or so. Maybe they were smarter than we were."
McCormick signaled Hans to bring another couple of rums and looked questioningly at the two newcomers. "The hot buttered rum really hits the spot. Warms you up pretty good, too."
George smiled at Hans. "That sounds like just the ticket."
"Four rums, then," nodded mine host. Gunther then strode to the door just as two men brought a taste of the snowstorm in with them, stamping and blowing.
"Whoo-ee! We dang near ran off the road just a mile back!" The first through the door shook off a few pounds of heavy, wet snow, slapping his cowboy hat against his knee then turned to assist his partner. "Nothing like this in the weather report this morning."
The other trucker pulled off his knit cap and nodded in agreement, then nodded again as a greeting to the group around the fire. "Evening, folks." He cast Gunther an appealing look. "You got a room for two more?"
"Ja, ja. You betcha. Not so many peoples travelling this Christmas, so we are having plenty of room for you all." Gunther took the coats and gloves and hats and disposed of them tidily in the coat closet. "Please to warm yourselves at the fire and could I get you something to drink?"
"Sure thing," said trucker number one, a husky fellow. "How 'bout a coupla whatever those folks are having?" He gestured toward the group at the fire.
Gunther grinned at them. "Very nice, very good. I bring in just a small moment." He bustled away as
the two men held a brief whispered colloquy then stomped over to the fire and settled into the large armchairs just to the side of the hearth.
"I'm Hank," said the one who ordered the drinks. "And this here's Jimmy." He poked a thumb at the man at his side. "We got our own business, haul hay out of North Dakota to central California."
Jimmy, slighter and darker than Hank, smiled at the company generally and murmured, "How do."
Hank arranged his feet a little nearer to the blaze and sighed comfortably. "Thought for a while we weren't gonna make it here, and we gotta full load this trip – 144 bales. Never known snow to come on so fast and strong, even when we were kids. And boy, we sure did have some blizzards when we were kids, huh, Jim?"
Jimmy offered his mite to the fireside crowd. "We're cousins, see."
Dorothy flinched slightly and George laid a hand gently on her arm as Gunther appeared with the next installment of steaming mugs.
"I hope now only that the power lines they don't go down." He handed mugs to Hank and Jimmy and stood beaming at his assembled guests. "We have a big need for the electricity, you know," he added as he proffered the judge's second round.
The entire group of guests cast anxious glances at each other. Then Hardcastle spoke.
"I'm going upstairs to unpack and grab a hot shower right now. There might not be any hot water if the power lines go down." He stood just as Hans reappeared with a tray of hot drinks for the two truckers and reached to pick up his own. "I'll just take this with me."
"A wise idea," came a new voice from the wide wooden stairway leading upstairs. An older woman, comfortably clad in a tweed skirt and coat and turtleneck, finished her descent and greeted the judge, closest to her. "I'm Anne Hawthorne. Professor of Physiology and Pharmacology and a profligate user of hot water." She held out a hand to Hardcastle with a smile. "I did leave a small amount for the rest of you, though."
Just then the room went dark.
Generators chugged and the tables were candle-lit. The truck-driving cousins seemed to be enjoying their meal at one table. Hank, at least, was loud in his praise of the food and the inn's resourcefulness.
The engaged couple were quieter, gazing at each other over the candles in seeming content, but with an air of tension, nonetheless.
At the third table, Professor Hawthorne patted her iron-gray bun, then reached for her wine glass again. "We're exploring the dependence of opioids on psychatric patients, specifically those with depression or anxiety disorder." She raised her voice slightly just as the generator cut out. "I specialize in cocaine."
Hardcastle grunted, then lifted another forkful of sauerbraten to his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, then asked, "Isn't that kinda . . . draining? I mean, sure, it's interesting and all, but doesn't it sorta get to you after a while? All the patients and their problems?"
"Yes, I admit that it does." The professor set down her glass and frowned just a bit. "It can be extremely wearing and even depressing, but it's also fascinating and very rewarding."
Mark stood, saying, "Maybe I can lend a hand with the generators." He tossed his napkin onto the table and headed toward the kitchen, turning back to add, "And maybe I can get 'em to hustle with dessert."
As he pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen, Mark heard Hans say, "The rotten thing. We should've gotten new ones." He looked up suddenly, saw Mark and nudged his brother.
"Can I help," McCormick peered down at the now-silent generator. "I know something about motors."
"Ja, please." Gunther smiled at him and waved a hand at the generator. "The verslungeter machine has quit on us and it is the one we have for the freezer."
Mark squatted down and unplugged the generator from the freezer, then screwed off the cap and looked inside to check the fuel level. "Great sauerbraten," he murmured. "I'm just glad you have gas stoves. Hey," he looked up at the brothers, you ever think about getting propane refrigerators, too?"
Hans nodded. "We have this place only owned for two years. But you are right. With the snow here, propane everything is the smart way. And it is pleased I am to know you like the food. Tomorrow is wienerschnitzel."
"So," McCormick was now searching the tool kit spread open on the floor, "you've only been here for a couple of years, huh? You come straight from Germany?" He selected a socket wrench and began to remove the spark plugs from the generator.
"Ah, we have a few years spent in America before coming here," said Hans nervously glancing at his brother.
Gunther took up the tale. "Ja, we in Wisconsin lived for a while. But always it was a dream to a restaurant run and when we saw this inn for sale in a magazine, immediately we knew it was for us."
Mark blew gently on the first spark plug and nodded. "I know what it's like to have a dream. You have to work for it, but you know it's worth it in the end. And here's your problem. If you have a thin file, I think I can get this guy running again."
A sigh of relief was heard from both men, then Hans clapped his hands together. "So now I will get the strudel ready. And tomorrow I make the Schwarzwälder kirschtorte!"
Hardcastle and Professor Hawthorne had moved back in front of the fire with cups of coffee, the professor in a wing chair and the judge next to her on the plush sofa.
"Do you work with law enforcement at all?" Hardcastle sipped at his coffee, then set the cup on the end table between the sofa and chair. "I've heard that some confiscated drugs make their way to research institutions and it sure makes sense for both sides."
"Hah!" barked Hank, walking toward the hearth with only a slight stagger. "Drugs, huh? You folks know much about that kinda stuff?" He plopped down into the wing chair opposite the professor and stared at her owlishly. "I know a thing or two about drugs, I can tell ya. But I won't." He suddenly stopped talking and took another swig from his beer glass. Then he peeped up from under his brows at Hardcastle and giggled. "Never seen as much snow as this, y'know?"
Jimmy walked over to stand behind Hank's chair, looking anxious. "C'mon, Hank. It's getting late and you know we have to get going early tomorrow."
Hank took another slug of beer, then tilted his head backward to look at his cousin. "With all that snow? We're stuck here, Jimmy boy. No way to make our deadline, so we might as well enjoy ourselves."
"I was meaning to ask you what kinda hay you're hauling," said Hardcastle blandly.
"Whaddaya mean, what kinda hay?" responded Hank belligerently. "It's hay, that's all!"
Jimmy interposed himself between the two, warming his hands at the fire. "It's alfalfa hay," he said quietly. "Going to a cattle ranch near Sacramento."
The judge pondered that, sipping his coffee. "I thought they raised quite a bit of hay in those parts. Alfalfa, oat, even some barley."
"Don't know about that," muttered Jimmy. "Maybe one of the ranchers had a crop failure or something."
"Nosey people give me a pain," complained Hank sourly. "Maybe you're right, Jimmy. Maybe the snow'll let up and we can haul outta here in the morning." He set down his empty glass and rose, with a little trouble, from his chair. "I'm goin' to bed!"
Jimmy shook his head, then followed his cousin up the stairs with a troubled expression just as McCormick wandered out from the kitchen to the renewed sound of the generator.
"Your strudel's coming out in just a sec," he called after Jimmy.
Jimmy turned and smiled down at him. "Thanks, but I think I better keep an eye on Hank. He gets like this sometimes. Just needs to settle down a bit. 'Night, everybody."
The judge furrowed his brow as he watched the cousins pass out of sight at the top of the staircase. "Why is it I get the feeling those two are in some kinda trouble?"
"Everyone has at least one secret, Judge." Professor Hawthorne, her thin, elegant face vaguely perturbed, set her cup on the end table. "I'm going to make it an early night, too. It's a long drive up here from Phoenix. And while the strudel sounds good, I do have to watch my waistline, you know." She stood, nodded to Hardcastle and McCormick and said "Good night."
"Good night," echoed the two men, then Hardcastle added, "I'm looking forward to talking to you more in the morning."
The professor smiled at him, then ascended the stairs to the upper floor.
McCormick looked at Hardcastle with raised eyebrows and a coy smile. The judge glared at him as expected, then McCormick perched on the hearth and looked across at the older man. "Just more strudel for us," he grinned.
A shrug was the response, then the judge rubbed his nose and frowned. "It seem to you that pretty much everybody here is hiding something or worried about something?"
"What about the lovebirds?" Mark waved a hand at the dining area, where George and Dorothy were now holding hands over the table, talking earnestly but quietly.
"Something wrong there. Dunno what, and maybe it's nothing important. You notice her jump a while ago? And George seems to be spending all his time calming her down. Ah!" Hardcastle saw Hans approaching with plates of strudel, straightened up and made room on the coffee table with a contented smile.
At the table of the engaged couple, George held Dorothy's hand tightly. "Don't give up now," he said in a hoarse whisper. "We're so close!"
"Oh, George," her head drooped and she sighed deeply, "it's no use. Something always happens. That man is a judge. Suppose he finds out –?"
George shook his head fiercely. "He won't. He can't. No one knows but us. Your parents won't even get your letter until tomorrow morning, so they can't set the law on our trail. Just hang on until the snow stops and we can get over the state line. Dot," he let go of her hand to reach out and cup her chin tenderly, "Dot, don't give up on me, on us,when we're this close."
Dorothy gave him a watery smile and nodded. "I'll keep going, for you, George."
A hoarse scream was abruptly cut off.
Hardcastle woke suddenly from a deep sleep. He turned over and looked at the quilt-wrapped lump in the other single bed. "You hear that?"
The lump didn't move.
"Hey," hissed the judge urgently. "Wake up!"
"Wha-?" A curly head poked out from under the topmost quilt. "Huh?"
"Did you hear something, kinda like a scream?" The judge was now clambering out of bed and trying to put on his robe.
Mark blinked a few times, then asked in a reasonable tone, "You mean aside from you?"
"Aahh, never mind." Hardcastle was now warmly clad and reaching for the doorknob. Yanking the door open, he stepped out into the dimly-lit hall, one oil lamp keeping the darkness at bay. He looked up and down the hallway then, seeing nothing uncalled for, strode three steps toward the head of the staircase. There, lying in the partly-open door of room 2 was Professor Hawthorne. She was wearing a sensible, cozy-looking flannel nightgown and bleeding profusely from the side of her head.
"Holy smokes!" Gunther ejaculated. "I mean, ach du lieber. Mein Gott!"
McCormick knelt beside the professor, keeping track of her pulse. "You think we can move her?" he asked Hardcastle.
"I don't think we have a choice."
"Are you sure her neck isn't . . . I mean, her head looks kinda . . . I mean, her hair . . ."
Hardcastle, who'd bent for a close look at the injury to the professor, straightened up suddenly. "Shut up," he muttered, then bent to lift up the woman's body and carry her into the room.
By now, George and Dorothy had joined Gunther and Hans in the hallway, asking questions in anxious voices. The two truckers were conspicuously absent.
"Shut the damn door! Wait!" The judge yelled at the small crowd in the hallway, "Can somebody boil some water and get some bandages?"
Hans shouted back, "Ja, see to it I will," and trotted back down the stairs.
"Do . . . do you need any help," offered Dorothy in a quavering voice. George looked at her in approval and wrapped his arm around her.
McCormick looked behind him at the judge bending over the body on the bed. Hardcastle looked back and shook his head vigorously.
"Nope, thanks, we got it under control. You folks might help by starting some coffee, though, and," Mark thought quickly, "see if Hans has any kind of medicine, maybe a first aid kit somewhere, that might help." Quickly, he closed the door and joined the other man by the bed. "Is she dead?" he asked in a low tone.
"No. But she's a he." Hardcastle waved a hand at the professor's hair. "That's a wig."
Mark looked at the unconscious person on the bed. "Well . . ." He paused and thought. "That's what she meant – I mean, he meant. When he said everybody had a secret."
"Well, whatever's going on, this was no accident." The judge carefully peeled the front of the wig back to better expose the injury, holding a towel to the wound to try to control the bleeding. "You notice there's no blood anywhere except that little puddle where she – he – was lying?"
"So, somebody attacked her – him?" McCormick looked around for killers lurking in the shadows. "Who? And why?"
A light knock was heard on the door. "Here I have the medical kit," came Hans' voice.
Hardcastle and McCormick looked at each other.
"We gotta have help with him," said the judge. "Somebody's gotta know and I'm not sure we can keep it from the rest of the group, either. One of 'em attacked this guy and we better figure out which one fast."
"Okay. I'll go round up everybody else and get them all together downstairs. You stay here," Mark aimed a thumb at the professor, "and keep watch over him with Hans for a few minutes. Then I'll check back with you and we can compare notes."
The judge strode over to the door, grabbed the knob, then turned back to McCormick. "You watch yourself, okay? We don't know who did this -" he aimed a thumb at the professor.
Mark looked at him grimly. "You watch yourself. It could have been Hans." He made way for the innkeeper to come through with the first aid kit, then headed for the stairway.
Hardcastle led the way to the bedside and checked the professor's pulse and lifted an eyelid. "Guess I better clue you in," he said slowly, one eye on Hans opening the white metal box and removing bandages. "Professor Hawthorne's . . . ah, not exactly female."
Hans straightened up suddenly. "Are you kidding? I mean, is it serious you are with me?" he added awkwardly.
"Look here. Isn't it about time you cut the German act?" The judge reached for a roll of bandages. "You're not all that good at it, ya know."
"Damn," sighed Hans. "This isn't exactly the way I pictured running this place. No power, one of our customers hurt, and our cover's blown almost from the start." He handed over a tube of antibiotic ointment. "There's some aspirin here if she – hewakes up. Nothing much else for the pain, though, I'm afraid."
Hardcastle shook his head. "I'm not sure we ought to be giving folks painkillers when they might be concussed. Her breathing's okay. Blast it! I'm still going to call her a "her" since that's what she wants."
"Okay by me," muttered Hans.
"So," the judge applied the antibiotic to the wound, then placed a gauze pad over it, "you gonna spill the beans about you and Gunther? Is he really even your brother?"
Hans shrugged morosely. "Suppose I'd better at this point. No, we're not German."
Hardcastle snorted. "There's a surprise."
The man formerly calling himself Hans extended a hand to the judge. "I'm Jeff Voorstad, and my brother's Duane. Our grandad was Dutch and we grew up outside of Racine."
"So," the judge continued to monitor the professor's breathing and checked the bleeding under the gauze pad again, "what's the deal here?"
"Can you see people stopping at a German inn run by Jeff and Duane?" The burly blond man pushed the first aid kit aside and propped his elbow heavily on the dresser. "Much less two guys named Voorstad. They'd expect to see cute little windmills and big wheels of cheese and wooden shoes on the walls." He shook his head. "No. We bought this place from the original owners and it already had the German reputation and décor. And I love German food, always have. So we decided to 'become' German, to fit the place." He looked at the judge morosely, eyebrows raised. "Didn't do so well, did we?"
Hardcastle sighed. "Not real well, no." He thought for a moment, then said carefully, "You ever think about maybe being honest with folks? Tell 'em you bought the place but keep up the old standards? Maybe even not even mention whether or not you're German yourselves."
Jeff leaned his head on his palm and closed his eyes briefly, then took a breath and said, "Yeah, that was one option. But we put everything we had into this place. It was a dream of ours since we were little kids – to get away from the farm and run our own B&B, or restaurant, or inn. When we saw the ad for this place, we knew it was perfect for us. The owner's name was Gunther, so Duane took that name and we just hoped we could pull it off. We couldn't take the risk of being honest, you see?"
"Listen," the judge put a hand on Jeff's shoulder and shook him gently. "The food's great, you two are likable fellas, you got a prime location here. Why not just go with what you have and make a success of that, instead of having to pretend all the time? Just think about it, is all I'm saying. Otherwise, people are gonna be wondering what the two of you are up to and not coming back. Or they'll try to have a conversation with you in German and then you'll really be in the schnitzel."
Dorothy huddled next to the fire, while George fed small chips of bark into the flames, scowling.
"You seen Hank or Jimmy or Gunther?" McCormick had made a brief detour to get dressed. He looked around the large open room, peered into the dining area.
"Gunther's making some coffee and Jimmy's helping him." Dorothy shivered lightly and edged nearer to the fire. "He said Hank was 'sleeping it off' upstairs."
George came over and put his arm around her. "Let me get you a blanket, sweetheart," he cajoled. "That robe's not very thick."
"No, I'll be fine," she murmured. "The coffee will help. But thank you." She looked up at him with love and squeezed his hand. Then she whispered to him briefly, slanting a look at Mark.
George muttered back, then stood and looked at McCormick. "Can I talk to you for a little, man to man?"
Mark shrugged. "Sure. Here?" He looked around. "We seem to be private enough right now."
George rubbed his face with his hand, then tilted his head back and took a deep breath. "We need help, and I thought I heard that guy with you – Hardcastle? Did he say he's a judge and you're a law student?"
"Yes," said Mark cautiously.
"Then I don't know if you'll want to help us, but we have to get out of here, and you look like our best bet." George looked back at Dorothy, who nodded hopefully. "You see," he said, taking another deep breath, "we're in love. And we're married, not just engaged."
Mark nodded helpfully, making a 'go on' gesture.
"And we're first cousins." George looked at his feet, then back at McCormick. "Which is illegal in Nevada. You see," he began talking a little faster, "I got a job in California and we established residency there, so we could be married. But then Dot had to come back here to close out her bank account and school pension fund and I didn't want her coming by herself, so here we are. It was only supposed to take one day, but now we're stuck and if anyone finds out – your friend's a judge and he'd have to turn us in, wouldn't he? As an officer of the court?"
McCormick frowned and shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm still in law school and I didn't even know first cousins can't marry in Nevada. But unless you're actively committing a crime, I think everything's okay." He shot a look at Dorothy and then back at George. "Neither one of you conked the professor, I hope."
A pair of heads were shaken.
"So why trust me with this?" Mark perched on the arm of the overstuffed couch and regarded the twosome with just a modicum of skepticism.
"We had to trust somebody and Dot thought you looked . . . nice." George shuffled a little, then shrugged. "Anyway, we just found out that Gunther's got a couple of snowmobiles in a shed out back. We were thinking maybe we could take off tomorrow morning if it stops snowing. And if no one stops us."
Dorothy spoke up. "And, of course, we'd send a doctor in for Professor Hawthorne."
"No, no, no." McCormick was firm, definite. "I really don't think there's a need for that kind of desperation . . . unless," he frowned and peered at them closely, "there's something more that you're not telling me."
Dorothy sent a pleading glance at George, who once again girded up his figurative loins and, wincing slightly, said, "We eloped. Dot's parents weren't exactly thrilled with the idea of us getting hitched, so we set up everything without telling them. And one reason she really came back was to try to explain to them – to get their approval once we were already married." He went to his wife, and placed a tender hand on her shoulder. "It didn't work. They were . . . a little angry."
"My dad belongs to one of those churches, you know? They believe in only marrying other members of the church and marrying a cousin is cause for excommunication. He's furious with us, and I'm afraid they're going to the police to try to get us stopped. You don't know my father; he'll do anything!" Dot was nearly in tears. "We were so close to the border with California, too, where we're safe."
Mark pinched the bridge of his nose. "Actually, I really doubt the cops would be interested in tracking you two down, especially since you're married legally -" he looked at George, who nodded vehemently – "and you haven't broken any laws in Nevada. But I'll tell you what. You can trust Hardcastle just as much as you can trust me, and he was a judge for a long time and knows everything about the law everywhere. I'll ask him about it and if he says you've got nothing to worry about, you can take that to the bank, okay?"
Dorothy looked at George, who looked back. After a long pause, "Okay," they said in unison.
"But don't tell anyone else, will you?" Dorothy cherished her husband's hand against her cheek. "I worry so much."
McCormick started to swear he'd never snitch on the two hardened criminals when Gunther pushed through the door from the kitchen and approached with a tray of coffee in mugs and slices of stollen on plates. Jimmy followed him, carrying another tray with sugar and milk in small jugs and a bowl of Christmas cookies.
"Thank you," said Mark in heartfelt tones. He looked around. "Hank still sleeping it off?"
Jimmy passed the cookies around and grinned in an abashed fashion. "He gets a little rambunctious at times. It was kinda stressful, driving through that snow and I guess he just relaxed a tad too much."
"But," asked Gunther plaintively, "we are to do what? There is an attack on a guest and we have no idea who it is that does such a thing. Surely, none of you . . .?"
As a group, they all looked up the stairs in the direction of the absent Hank.
"Oh, come on now." Jimmy shook his head, set down his coffee and placed his hands on his hips. "Hank's a bit rough at times, but he wouldn't hit a lady. And he didn't have any reason to, either. You can't seriously think . . ."
"Well, if he didn't, who did then?" George put his arm around Dorothy protectively.
A silence fell, broken only by the sound of a log collapsing in the fireplace.
"I'll take some coffee up to Hardcastle and check on Hank," Mark said finally.
"Check on me," came a woozy voice from the stairs. Hank stumbled into view, rubbing his eyes. "What's going on? Jimmy, is the truck okay? I mean, is the stuff -"
Jimmy interrupted his cousin and started toward the stairs. "Everything's fine, Hank. You go on back to bed, okay? We'll have to get an early start in the morning and you need your sleep."
Hank waved him off and continued down the stairs. "Naw. I can't sleep any more. I'm too worried about the truck."
George planted himself in front of Dorothy and folded his arms. "You ought to be worried about Professor Hawthorne," he said sternly.
McCormick waved a hand and shook his head to stop him, but George ignored him.
"You could have killed her, and she might die yet, for all I know. Why'd you do it, Hank? What threat was she to you, or was it just drunken meanness?"
Hank came to an abrupt halt at the foot of the stairs. "Huh? The professor? Something happened to her?"
Gunther confronted him belligerently. "Ja, something happened to her. You hit her in the head and damn near killed her." His German accent faded away until it was only a brief memory. "You drunken lunatic! What the hell were you thinking? Are you nuts?"
Hank staggered over to a wing chair next to the bottom step and dropped into it. "You think I . . . Jimmy, tell 'em! I was asleep. I didn't hit nobody!"
Jimmy put a hand on his shoulder and spoke quietly. "Hank, maybe you ought to go back upstairs and let me handle this. Just get some rest, okay?"
"No, it's not okay! You really think -" he looked at the small group facing him in silence, "you really think I clobbered some old lady? I didn't! I didn't have no reason to!"
"You were drunk," offered Dorothy. "Maybe you didn't mean to." She looked at him hopefully.
"No! I didn't! I wasn't that drunk!" Hank scrubbed his face with his hands, then looked around at them again. "Can I have some coffee?" he asked plaintively.
Jimmy turned and headed for the kitchen. "I'll get it. I know the way you like it."
Hank sat, unmoving, for a moment, then abruptly stood and ambled toward the fireplace. "It wasn't me. It couldn't've been me. Jimmy was the one that was worried that professor knew about the cocaine."
"What -" began Gunther, but Mark shushed him imperatively.
"Do you think the professor knew about the cocaine?" Mark questioned softly.
"How could she? Nobody's gonna unload the whole truck. That's how Jimmy was so smart. A hundred bales of hay all packed around it. Who's gonna go to all that work?" Hank leaned against the stonework of the fireplace and shook his head despairingly. "I didn't hit no lady."
Jimmy appeared without sound, bearing a steaming mug. "Here, Hank. Drink this and sit down. You were so drunk you don't know what you did."
McCormick caught the aroma of coffee mixed with something else, something acrid. "Hold it! What's in there?" He reached for the coffee mug, but Jimmy pulled it out of his reach.
"What? You think there's something in here? That I'd do something to my own cousin?" Jimmy was incredulous. "I wouldn't hurt Hank. He's a real pain sometimes, but he's pretty harmless. Sure, he makes stuff up, like that cocaine story, but there's nothing in here that would hurt him."
Gunther eyed him suspiciously. "Then you drink it," he said suddenly.
"What?" Jimmy spun around, all eyes on him now.
Hank struggled to overcome his stupor and help his cousin. "Jimmy didn't hurt nobody neither. He said we didn't need to, that he was too smart for anybody to figure out what we was doing."
"Shut up," Jimmy screamed, coffee splashing from the mug. He looked down at it, then threw the contents onto the fire. "You lousy drunk. I'm tired of bailing you out of trouble. And of all your lies about me. You get yourself out of this one, Hank." He put his hands out in a placating manner and turned to face McCormick, Gunther, George, then Dorothy. "Really, now. You can't believe a word he says, you know."
Mark spoke up. "Well, lucky for us, we have a witness. Professor Hawthorne didn't die and she'll probably be able to tell us exactly who slugged her."
"But we know who did it." Jimmy threw a hand at his cousin, now sitting wretchedly on the hearth. "I'm not saying he's responsible for what he did, but it's sure not the first time he's attacked somebody when he's drunk."
"He says he didn't." George drew himself up and faced Jimmy directly. "How do we know which one of you really attacked the professor?"
"I can tell you which one it was." Professor Hawthorne's voice was weak, but assured, her wig in place and the blood cleaned from it. Carefully supported by Hans/Jeff and Hardcastle, she stepped to the stair railing and peered over. "It was Jimmy who hit me."
With a muttered curse, Jimmy shoved Hank out of his way and ran to the door.
"Hey," yelled the judge, "don't just stand there! Go get him!"
Mark rolled his eyes, then obediently sprinted out the door after the fleeing Jimmy. The snow blinded him for an instant and then he heard an engine roar into life. A sudden beam of light appeared from around the corner of the inn and a snowmobile shot past him into the snow and dark.
McCormick slogged through the snow as fast as he could and found a dimly-lit shed that contained another snowmobile. Quickly, he checked the controls, then hopped aboard and started the engine. Finding the headlight switch, he flicked it on, stomped on the accelerator and was off in a cloud of powdery snow.
Visibility was almost nil, but Mark followed the faint tracks left in the snow and the sound of the other snowmobile engine. It seemed to be getting a little louder, so he cautiously upped his speed, swiping the snow out of his eyes frequently.
The wind howled and, if anything, the snowfall seemed to be even heavier than before. The snowmobile tracks led over small rises and through narrow dips. Pine trees surrounded the trail, occasionally dropping loads of snow with loud thumps. There was no sign of life, no animals or birds. "Sure," muttered McCormick through a mouthful of snow. "They've got more sense."
Suddenly, the noise of the engine McCormick had been following grew louder still, and he could see a partial circle of light on the snow cast by the headlight. He throttled back and approached in a swirling cloud of snow. It looked like the snowmobile had run into a drift and gotten snagged on something under all the snow. Jimmy was nowhere to be seen, but faint and fading footprints led off into the storm.
Mark cut off the engine and then the headlight of the abandoned snowmobile. "Jimmy!" he shouted as loudly as he could. "Jimmy, come back! You can't stay out here!" He paused to listen for an answer, or any sign over the noise of the wind. "Jimmy! You have to come back! I can't wait out here for you!" he yelled once more. Only the wind and the sound of the snow hissing through the air answered him. Shivering, he breathed deeply, noticing that Jimmy's tracks were now completely obliterated by the ever-increasing snowfall.
Reluctantly, he turned his own vehicle around and headed back toward the inn, following the shallow tracks the two snowmobiles had left. After only a few minutes, those tracks were gone, but McCormick, eyes slitted against the driving snow, kept on, hoping he was heading in the right direction.
After a time that seemed endless, filled with white, he heard a faint banging noise and altered his course slightly. The noise grew louder and he began to hear a familiar voice shouting as well.
"McCormick!" came the bellow again, and the banging resolved into the clanging of metal. A very faint glow off to the right, and there was the inn, a row of eight oil lamps lined along the railing, the judge out front shouting and Dorothy hammering a metal saucepan with the fireplace poker. McCormick brought the snowmobile to a stop right in front of the door, and the judge lent a hand to help him dismount. Hardcastle then supported his nearly-frozen friend into the inn, Dorothy following behind, brushing great lumps of snow off Mark as best she could
Beside the hearth, George was keeping a sodden and sorry Hank under guard while the erstwhile Hans, now Jeff, built up the fire. Duane, formerly Gunther, hurried over to Mark with a steaming mug and a blanket to wrap around himself.
"Chicken soup. Be careful, it's really hot." He offered the mug. "And I've got a pot of coffee on and more soup for anybody who wants it."
Hank spoke up in a blurry and tentative voice. "Jimmy? You didn't catch him?"
"I'm sorry, Hank." Mark, soup in one hand, adjusted the blanket awkwardly. "He's still out there. There's no way he can . . ."
Hank hung his head, then lifted it up, smiling sadly. "He wanted to deal in snow. Guess he did."
McCormick tootled the horn as a farewell to the tiny group of people waving to the truck as they left. "The cops sure weren't happy with you for letting the lovebirds get away before talking to them." He drove carefully, slowly picking up speed as the truck approached the inn sign and the highway.
"Hey, I got no legal authority here." Hardcastle pressed a palm to his chest. "If they want to haul outta here at six in the morning, what can anybody do about it?"
Mark snickered. "How does anybody know when they left, if everybody was still asleep?" He glanced over at the judge and murmured, "You big softie."
"Ah, you're nuts." Hardcastle waved the problem away.
"There's the snowplow, going back toward the inn," pointed out McCormick. He glanced again at the speedometer, shook his head and sighed. "It's gonna be awhile before we get down to the flats and out of this snow."
The judge barked out a laugh. "I thought you wanted snow! Well, you sure got it." He waved a hand at the windshield. "Lots and lots of snow."
"There can be too much of a good thing, y'know." McCormick used the wipers briefly to get some slush clear, then added, "I'm about ready for some sun and sand. You?"
The older man grunted, hand propped on the truck door, chin resting on his palm. "Why is it all our vacations end up like this?" he grumped. "Nice place to stay, good food, lotsa snow, friendly people – well, mostly anyway – and we end up catching bad guys again."
"Not to mention finding out everybody's secrets." Mark carefully upped his speed just a bit, but stayed vigilant for black ice on the highway.
"Yeah." A silence fell in the truck cab. Then, "Except ours. Then again, we don't really have any secrets."
A snort came from the driver's side. "Oh yeah? Bet you don't know what I got you for Christmas."
"Yeah, well, you're never gonna guess what I got you, either." Hardcastle settled himself more comfortably. "How soon will we get home?"
"Before midnight, if the traffic's not bad. I can stop and pick up a turkey and some stuffing mix, maybe some cranberry jelly." Mark raised his eyebrows hopefully.
Hardcastle smiled at the thought. "Some sweet potatoes, get a pumpkin pie and some eggnog. That's a plan."
McCormick grinned. "Then we can open our presents, right at midnight."
"Oh, no," responded the judge. "Presents in the morning, in front of the tree." He mused for a moment. "Although some of that twenty-year old brandy with the eggnog would be mighty nice."
"What the –! How did you know that?" Mark sent a quick glance at his passenger and then sighed. "I can't keep anything secret from you, can I?"
"Nope," with a grin.
McCormick grinned right back at him. "But I bet that monogrammed set of cuff links will make me feel better about it."
The truck, chains rattling, sped down the road in a swirl of snow.